Words Edel Cassidy
The remarkable success of Sybil Connolly (24 January 1921–6 May 1998) is attributed to a combination of extraordinary creative talent and business acumen. She first came to international prominence following a fashion show at Dunsany Castle, County Meath, in July 1953. The show was hosted by Lady Sheila Dunsany, who had met Sybil when she was head designer for Richard Alan’s, the prestigious fashion store in Dublin’s Grafton Street.
Born in Swansea, Wales, to an Irish father and a Welsh mother, the family moved to Waterford when Sybil was a teenager. At the age of seventeen, she started work as an apprentice dressmaker at a company run by two Irish brothers in London, Bradley & Co. As a junior, she assisted at fittings for Queen Mary at Buckingham Palace.
Returning to Ireland in 1940, she worked at Richard Alan’s and in 1952 was appointed design director. She was determined not only to keep up with the latest international trends, but also to incorporate Irish fabrics wherever possible, including tweed, crochet, lace and, most notably, linen. In 1957 she launched her own couture line.
Carmel Snow, editor-in-chief of Harper’s Bazaar from 1934 to 1958, was fashion’s most influential voice at this time. Snow, who was born in Dalkey, County Dublin, proved instrumental in launching Sybil’s career and it was she who was responsible for ensuring that a large group of American buyers and journalists, en route to Paris for the couture shows, stopped off in Ireland for the fashion show at Dunsany Castle in 1953. Later that year, when Sybil travelled to America, her full-length red cape and white crochet dress graced the cover of Life Magazine with the headline, ‘Irish Invade Fashion World’.
In March 1956, the cover of Harper’s Bazaar had the title ‘Spring Collections Paris, London, Dublin, Italy’, indicating that the collections coming out of Dublin were considered just as important as those coming from Paris or Milan.
Sybil’s popularity continued to rise throughout the late 1950s and the 60s. She dressed many Hollywood stars, and America’s first lady, Jackie Kennedy, wore one of Sybil’s pleated linen dresses for her official White House portrait.
Later in her career, Sybil turned her hand to interiors, and she designed tableware for Tiffany & Co, glasses for Tipperary Crystal and wallpapers for Gramercy. She was consulted for the decoration of The Swiss Cottage in County Tipperary in 1989, always the entrepreneur, excelling at anything she put her mind to.